These were the words I got on a phone call early in the morning of May 15 two years ago today. A beloved church member, a dear brother in Christ, a servant of many, and my friend, Cliff, had been shot and killed in his hometown, Gary, Indiana. I had lost friends before to gun violence. Unfortunately, growing up in the Chicagoland area it was not an uncommon (yet always tragic) experience. But when I got this phone call, it felt different.
Just two days before he died, I was with Cliff...praying (something we did together often). A little boy in our church family had been diagnosed with cancer on the Sunday before the Wednesday we gathered to pray for him. At the prayer meeting, many people were perplexed at how God could allow something as tragic as this to happen to a child. Some questioned the goodness of God and even others His existence in that moment of pain. For my brother Cliff, though, this was a situation secure in the hands of our good God. He held a confidence that night even in his prayer. He focused on God's character in his prayer. He focused on God's power and ability to heal. He focused on the hope of heaven and a glorified body...a hope only Jesus Christ can bring to us.
After the prayer meeting, we began to talk about how much we hate the effects of sin on the world and how we longed for the day where there would be no more cancer, no more suffering, and no more death. Growing up in Gary, Cliff saw what violence did to his city and even to his own family. At times, he wanted to leave because he was sick of it. I remember him telling me as much as he wanted to leave he found he could never do it. Instead, he wanted to bring change in his city. So he stayed. He was respected by many in the community. People looked up to him. I looked up to him.
We had dreams and plans of how the church could try to bring change and point people to the hope of the gospel in broken neighborhoods. We left that Wednesday night of prayer deeply hopeful of what God would do in the little boy's life and in our community God had placed us. Just before I left, Cliff said, "Pastor, that boy will be alright. We'll all be alright. Jesus has us and we have Him." He gave me a big hug, he prayed over me as the pastor who would have to lead this family through this painful season, and...that was the last time I would see my brother (at least for now). A few days later, we held the funeral for him at our church building.
I've preached so many funerals I stopped counting. It's painful. I've preached funerals for friends, family, church family, and complete strangers. Officiating Cliff's funeral was one of the most difficult funerals I've ever experienced. It was difficult because I had to communicate the hope of the resurrection of Jesus, the assurance of God's sovereign plan, the confidence of our brother's better situation, through the tearful eyes that felt the sting of death. It was difficult because of the huge responsibility to communicate the comfort of this hope in Christ to a family who was completely devastated and blindsided by what happened.
During the funeral, we looked at hope in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and what His resurrection means about our resurrection. While the "sting of death" was felt, it lost it's power. In that intense moment of pain (and I must confess in the painful moments still lingering two years later), a monument of hope was found in Jesus Christ. For it is in Jesus Christ, there is hope. In Jesus, there is the hope of God's good plan. In Jesus, there is hope this violence will end. In Jesus, there is hope death will be no more. In Jesus, there is hope my brother, Cliff, is in the presence of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, and in that presence, he is experiencing pleasures forevermore. In Jesus, there is hope I will see my friend again.
Oh, in case you were wondering, that boy is doing better than alright. He is a happy and healthy three-year-old boy free from cancer. He is a present reminder of the goodness of our God amidst great suffering in this world.